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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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3.1 A sample discussion

In this section we have provided an example of document analysis using the ‘blank cheque’ document. We have included the questions listed in ‘Skills development analysing primary sources’ above as part of our analysis. The ‘blank cheque’ is an often-evoked metaphor for the promises given by Berlin to Vienna in early July 1914.

A sample discussion on the 'blank cheque' telegram

This document is a confidential telegram [what type of document?] from the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador in Berlin, Count Szögýeny-Marich [who is the author?], to his superior, Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold, in Vienna. It is dated 5 July 1914, just a week after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo [historical context]. The document was not intended for publication, being a confidential telegram.

Count Szögýeny describes the events at the Kaiser’s palace when he delivered to the monarch a handwritten letter by the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph, which had been delivered to Berlin by special envoy Count Hoyos [what is the document about?]. This is the so-called ‘Hoyos Mission’, an event whose importance has been discussed by historians debating the origins of the First World War [historical context; your wider knowledge].

Vienna despatched the envoy to ascertain if their German ally would come to Austria-Hungary’s aid in case of a war with Serbia over the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. It was believed that Serbian nationalists (and possibly even the Serbian government) had been behind the murder of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne and the government in Vienna was trying to decide how to react to this provocation [historical context; your wider knowledge].

In his telegram, Szögýeny makes it clear that, after some initial hesitation because he could not first confer with the Chancellor, Kaiser Wilhelm gave his unconditional support to Vienna: ‘the Kaiser authorised me to inform our Gracious Majesty that we might in this case, as in all others, rely upon Germany’s full support’. He needed to consult with the German Chancellor but was certain that he, too, would want to support Vienna: ‘he did not doubt in the least that Herr von Bethmann Hollweg would entirely agree with him.’ [Short citations of important points]

This reassurance, which was indeed backed up by the Chancellor the following day, amounted to a ‘blank cheque’ for the Viennese government who could now feel free to act aggressively towards Serbia, knowing that their ally would back them if a war ensued [historical context; your wider knowledge].

The critical part of the document is: ‘even if a war between Austria-Hungary and Russia were to result, we could be convinced that Germany would stand by our side with the usual faithfulness of an ally.’ Historians like Fritz Fischer have used this document to argue that there was planning on the parts of Vienna and Berlin to risk a war [how might historians use this document?].

The document shows that the allies, Austria-Hungary and Germany, discussed their responses to the assassination, and that they decided to support each other. Kaiser Wilhelm promised that Austria could ‘rely upon Germany’s full support […] regarding an action on our part against Serbia’ [short citations of important points]. This is what amounts to issuing a blank cheque.

But it also shows that Germany was urging its ally not to delay any action: the Kaiser said he ‘would regret if we did not make use of the present moment, which was so favourable for us’. The document also spells out why this was a ‘favourable’ moment: ‘Russia was, by the way, at the present time not prepared for war, and would certainly think very hard before appealing to arms.’ [short citations of important points]

The Kaiser’s statement supports the Fischerite argument that Germany wanted to use the present opportunity to push for war while there was a chance of winning against Russia and its ally, France. This document seems to confirm Fischer’s thesis that Germany, and its ally Austria-Hungary, plotted behind the scenes to bring about a war during favourable circumstances [how might historians use this document?]. It can be supplemented with other documents that support this view, such as a telegram dated 6 July from Austrian diplomat Count Forgách to Hungarian Prime Minister Tisza in which Forgách explains that Germany urged Austria-Hungary to strike against Serbia (Cited in Mombauer (2013), No. 31, p. 208).

However, not all historians agree with Fischer that this is a significant piece of evidence for German culpability. Christopher Clark, for example, advocates less focus on Berlin and Vienna, and more focus on Serbia and its backers. In this interpretation, decisions taken in Germany and Austria-Hungary are less central than Fischer and his followers would argue. He also contends that Vienna was not bullied by Berlin but had decided on action in any case [how might historians use this source?]. And, of course, the document only tells us about decisions taken in two capital cities [limitations of the source].

To evaluate the diplomatic origins of the war properly, one would need to compare this evidence with examples from the capitals of all the major powers, and of course Serbia. Nonetheless, this is a key document in the debate on the origins of the First World War, which sheds light on decision-making in Berlin and Vienna at a time when it would still have been possible to avert a European war. Instead of exercising caution, Kaiser Wilhelm put pressure on his ally to act decisively while issuing an unconditional statement of support that did indeed amount to a ‘blank cheque’.

Historians are not agreed on whether the government in Vienna would have steered the course it did had it not been expressly encouraged by Berlin to do so.

Below is cartoonist Peter Brookes’ take on the ‘blank cheque’. This cartoon, and other contemporary takes on our topic, can be found on the 14–18–NOW website [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Described image
Figure 10 A blank cheque for war by Peter Brookes

Students’ skills development

Your students can find additional relevant documents on the German History in Documents and Images website. For example, this document, dated 10 July 1914, reproduces some of the Kaiser’s famous marginal notes, which he often scribbled in the margins of documents, and which were often rather unguarded and revealing.

In the next section, you will explore how historians differ in their interpretation of the ‘blank cheque’.